Victorian sex factoids

Factoid: n. Something that becomes accepted as a fact, although it is not (or may not be) true; spec. an assumption or speculation reported and repeated so often that it is popularly considered true; a simulated or imagined fact. (Oxford English Dictionary)

'Thinking of England'
Queen Victoria and lesbians
Prince Albert's 'prince albert'
Clitoridectomies
The Victorian patriarch and his family
Those piano legs in pantalettes
Doctors masturbating women as a cure for hysteria/'Victorian vibrators'
Wife-beating and the 'Stick no thicker than one's thumb'
Prostitutes at Thackeray's funeral
Alleged code meaning of 'earnest'
Ruskin's supposed phobia of female pubic hair
The fashionableness of nipple-rings
The advanced age at which nineteenth century girls began to menstruate
Still no definite information either way: the alleged condoms bearing the image of Queen Victoria (or other Victorian notables)
'One "dud" in every box'
Statistical problems: Prevalence of STDs; Numbers of prostitutes
Cannabis, alleged use for period pains by Queen Victoria
Aristotle's Masterpiece: A Banned Book?
Some thoughts on Jack the Ripper and Ripperology
The British Royal Family’s Circumcision Tradition
Victorian Sanitary Protection

'Thinking of England'

'Close your eyes and think of England', or 'I close my eyes [in some references, 'and open my legs'] and think of England' are sayings attributed to various Victorians either as their own comment on marital sexual relations or as advice from mothers to daughters on impending marriage. They are repeatedly cited as an exemplar of Victorian sexual attitudes, at least among middle/upper-class females. The only even remotely contemporary source for this consists of a citation to the unpublished diary c. 1912 (thus not literally Victorian, or even Edwardian, but Georgian) of 'Lady Hillingham' by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy in The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny (1972). No further details are given, such as where it can be located - not even the unhelpful statement 'in private hands'. No Lady Hillingham appears in the relevant contemporary reference works, but there was a Lady Hillingdon alive and married around at that time: however but whether the (putative) author of the (putative) diary can be assimilated to her is open to question. The line about closing ones's eyes and thinking of England may (but this is only a guess) be a fairly early post-Victorian construct about Victorian sexual mores. It sounds most unlike anything the dear Queen would have said herself.
Update: I orginally said that no citations much earlier than the 1970s have been adduced in evidence. I have now come across a 1940 (still well post-Victoria) version in Dorothy Thurtle's Abortion: Right or Wrong?, which suggests that the phrase was current at least 30 years earlier:
Their attitude is fittingly illustrated by the reply of the woman who, endeavouring to enlighten her daughter how she herself had managed to survive the horrid ordeal, replied that she just closed her eyes and thought of England. (p. 32)

Queen Victoria and lesbians

The much-cited story about Queen Victoria personally intervening to omit lesbianism from the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 is a myth.

My own opinion on the matter as put forward in Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain since 1880 (2000): 'There is an apocryphal story that the clause* originally included "gross indecency" between women but that this was struck out by Queen Victoria herself, who refused to believe it possible**. The Queen surely stands as a metonym for the reluctance of the Victorian age to conceive of sexual autonomy in women. There was no existing offence, analogous to buggery, relating to lesbianism, which did not count as a 'matrimonial offence' for the purposes of divorce. Women were not conceived of as capable of rape or the seduction of minors, and equality before the law on such charges was never argued. The torrent of warnings against self-abuse in the male had no female equivalent. Immediately prior to the introduction of Labouchere's amendment, the House of Commons strongly rejected as cruel and unjust the suggestion that a girl under fifteen who consented to unlawful intercourse with a boy of the same age (for which the boy was liable to imprisonment) ought to be sent to a reformatory.'
* The Labouchere Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 which criminalised 'gross indecency' between (consenting) (adult) males in public or in private.
** Or, in some versions, the government officials could not bring themselves to explain it to the Queen.

Prince Albert's 'Prince Albert'

In the spring of 2000 there was much discussion on the Victoria and Histsex discussion lists about claims that the form of penile piercing known as 'Prince Albert' was thus named because the Prince Consort himself had such a piercing. The general consensus was that this was very unlikely to have been the case. One contributor pointed out that, according to rec.arts.bodyart: Piercing FAQ 8--Historical Information, Doug Malloy, who was one of the 'grandfathers of late 20th century piercing practices' and 'created a number of the piercings now considered standard', wrote much of the ancient history he claimed for piercing himself and that most of this was probably his own invention: 'he never produced any concurrent written records of his findings'. It was also plausibly suggested that the name arose from the similarity of this piercing to the 'Prince Albert' style of wearing a fob-watch chain.

Clitoridectomy

There is little evidence that clitoridectomy was ever a routine prescription of Victorian medical men for ‘female disorders' such as hysteria: given the lack of attention paid to the clitoris in medical textbooks, probably few doctors could reliably have located it. Clitoridectomy gained temporary notoriety through the activities of Dr Isaac Baker Brown, who advocated the operation and performed it at his London Surgical Home in the 1860s (some passages from his Surgical Diseases of Women can be found on the Clitoris: Historical Myths and Facts page). He was expelled from the London Obstetrical Society after heated debates, and died mad and in disgrace. For an excellent analysis of this episode and doctors' competing agendas, see Ornella Moscucci, 'Clitoridectomy, circumcision, and the politics of sexual pleasure in mid-Victorian Britain', in AH Miller and JE Adams (eds), Sexualities in Victorian Britain, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996. Discussion of the subject disappeared from Victorian medical literature: however, I was informed recently by someone who had done research in later nineteenth century case records of one of the Scottish lunatic asylums that these had recorded occasional instances to curb habitual masturbation. But have not as yet had any specific citations on this.

The Victorian patriarch and his family

He holds lengthy family prayers before breakfast, married relatively late in life a virginal bride with whom he has an infrequent and inhibited sex life and who now spends much of her time lying on a sofa exhausted by childbearing and the strain of marriage to such a man, routinely flogs his sons to maintain discipline, keeps his daughters as useless and ignorant as possible, turns pregnant housemaids out of doors with no pay and no character, keeps a mistress in a discreet establishment, and probably also has sex with underage prostitutes. A picture which conflates the attitudes and practices of a wide range of very different Victorians over the whole extent of Victoria's long reign into one composite Frankenstein figure, who owes particular debts to Rudolph Besier's play The Barretts of Wimpole Street (twice filmed, in 1934 with Charles Laughton as Mr Barrett and in 1957 with John Gielgud in the role) and Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh. This conflation is also one of the foundations of notions of Victorian hypocrisy: i.e. moral earnestness and libertine behaviour were both to be found in Victoria's subjects but very seldom in the same individual.

Those piano legs in pantalettes

This is a topic which is perennially being raised on the Victoria list. The whole story originated in Captain Frederick Marryat's 1839 Diary in America as an observation of one of the weird ways of the Americans. It was persistently used as an exemplar of Yankee prissiness and over-refinement by the robust British Victorians.

Doctors masturbating women as a cure for hysteria/'Victorian vibrators'

This notion has been given extensive currency via Rachel Maines' The Technology of Orgasm (1998), a work which was critically discussed on the Histsex list in the summer of 1999 (entries now collated into one compendious and convenient document). The general consensus among a number of individuals working within the field of history of sexuality and medicine was that the practice, if it occurred at all, would have been confined to an extremely limited group, rather than being as widespread as Maines seems to indicate. Some of the sources cited don't entirely support the arguments that rest on them.
Discussions on H-Histsex, Aug 2011, generated by the release of the trailer for the movie Hysteria; and further discussion there, Oct 2012.
A few points that came up in discussion then and in later iterations which suggest that a certain scepticism about these claims would be appropriate:
It is impossible to say with any definiteness that something never occurred, but it is possible to argue that this particular treatment for 'hysteria' was rare and fell outside mainstream accepted medical practice in Victorian England. Things may have been different in North America.

Wife-beating and the 'Stick no thicker than one's thumb'

It was widely believed in the Victorian era, and the belief has persisted until the present, that there was a statutory right of husbands to beat their wives providing the stick used was not thicker than their thumb. Maeve E. Doggett, in her exhaustive study Marriage, Wife-Beating and the Law in Victorian England 1992, was unable to locate the much-cited 'phantom Caroline statute' allegedly embodying the old Common Law, authorising a man to 'chastise his wife with any reasonable instrument'. Nor could it be proved that Sir Francis Buller, an eighteenth century judge, had, in 1782, 'tried to revive the ancient doctrine that it was lawful for a husband to beat a wife, provided that the stick were no thicker than his thumb', even though three contemporary cartoons allude to this. There is no indication that this pronouncement was made from the bench during any of the cases on which he sat that session.

Researching this topic still more recently, Jenni Murray discovered that 'we had landed in the territory of urban myth': there was not and had never been such a ruling in modern British law, either in statute or case law. However, she did find that in medieval Welsh law, under certain specific stringently defined conditions, a man might strike a woman with a stick as thick as his middle finger and as long as his forearm, but only three blows were allowed, anywhere on the body but the head. She suggests that Buller, whose court sat in Shrewsbury on the Welsh Marches, and Judge Tudor Rees, who claimed in 1948 that the common law permitted the 'rule of thumb' chastisement of wife by husband, and had trained at the University of Wales, may have been influenced by memories of folk custom in Wales. Her article 'I was nearly beaten by "the stick"', appeared in The Daily Telegraph, 7 Feb 2002 (not online, unfortunately).

Prostitutes at Thackeray's funeral

In a letter to The Guardian Review, 17 Jan 2004, Patrick Leary pointed out that the allegation that 'the prostitutes Thackeray visited turned out in force at his funeral' is entirely a construction of DJ Taylor's 1999 biography of Thackeray:
In painting a picture of the crowded scene at Thackeray's funeral, Taylor quotes JE Millais's observation that among the approximately 2000 people milling about the chapel and gravesite was a group of women wearing brightly coloured dresses. "Who were these gaudy grave attendants?" Of course the answer is that we don't know. A great many people who had never even met Thackeray in person showed up at his funeral. But now this unidentified group of colourfully dressed women has mutated, not only into prostitutes, but prostitutes that Thackeray himself had "visited".
Leary points out that this is 'an excellent example of how a sniggering remark can mutate into a factoid whose truth, soon enough, everyone takes for granted'.

Alleged code meaning of 'earnest'

It is increasingly frequently claimed that the word "earnest" was a Victorian slang code word for "homosexual", making the title of the Wilde play a deliberate triple pun relished by his friends in London's homosexual subculture. Patrick Leary points out that this claim had been been debunked several times in several places, most comprehensively in the Times in 2001, as reported on VICTORIA and the Oscar Wilde discussion list.

Ruskin's supposed phobia of female pubic hair

The assumption that John Ruskin had a phobia about female pubic hair and that this was the reason for the non-consummation of his marriage to Effie Gray, subsequently annulled, has very wide circulation. This interpretation is based on Mary Lutyens' speculations as to what Ruskin might have meant by telling Effie that he was 'disgusted with [her] person', in her works on the Ruskin marriage, Effie in Venice (1965) and Millais and the Ruskins (1967). It is by no means a contemporary explanation, and is merely one theory out of many as to why he failed to consummate his marriage. Lutyens herself changed her mind (see her 1972 The Ruskins and the Grays), having discovered evidence suggesting that Ruskin would have been aware that women normally had pubic hair. The comment about 'disgust with [her] person' was made at a stage when their marriage had become full of hatred and bitterness. See extensive discussions on the Victoria list, between 13 and 19 February 2006, for a variety of competing theories, and a general scepticism over the 'pubic hair phobia' myth. Many thanks to everyone on Victoria and also on H-Histsex who provided assistance with elucidating this and tracing it to Lutyens.

The fashionableness of nipple-rings

It is alleged that there was a high society fashion for women to have nipple-piercings in order to wear breast jewellery in the late Victorian/Edwardian era. The evidence for this as a widespread fashion rather than a niche practice is very dubious. All sources trace back eventually to citations of correspondence in the journal Society during 1899. Although Society included political notes, society gossip, theatre reviews, some fiction, and so forth, its correspondence columns were entirely given over to discussion of such topics as corporal punishment (mainly in girls' boarding schools), tight-lacing, and the fascination of tight kid gloves. The fetishistic tone of these letters has been recognised by the classifying of Society as a 'Cupboard' item by the British Library, and in Valerie Steele's discussion of this and similar periodicals in Fashion and Eroticism (1985). It appears to have been taken as serious reportage by Iwan Bloch in Sexual Life in England (first published in German in 1901). As Peter Fryer noted in Private Case, Public Scandal (1966), this work, which demonstrates Bloch's 'touching inability' to distinguish when something was pornographic fantasy, was extensively mined (often without attribution) by writers of popular works on weird sexual practices and unusual fashions over a period of several decades.

The advanced age at which nineteenth century girls began to menstruate

One often hears it asserted that the nineteenth century girl did not attain menarche until the age of around 17. Vern L Bullough pointed out that this was a misinterpretation of the often scattered evidence, in his article 'Age at Menarche: A Misunderstanding' published in Science, 213, 17 Jul 1981, pp. 365-366, and that the assumption that over the previous hundred years the age of menarche had dropped precipitously from 17 to 12.5 years was based upon misinformation, so that the change was very much less than supposed.

Still no definite information either way: the alleged condoms bearing the image of Queen Victoria (or other Victorian notables)

I have come across (and so have other people) accounts of C19th condoms bearing the image of the Queen (or other eminent Victorians, e.g. Mr Gladstone). It's possible that the images were on the packets rather than the condoms, but either way, this intriguing (if rather creepy) factoid about Victorian contraceptive marketing practices remains in limbo. No definite sightings, but no citation to a definitely fictional source either.

'One "dud" in every box'

Possibly not Victorian, but sufficiently early in the twentieth century that it may well have been around as received folk wisdom during the latter decades of the nineteenth. It's less a factoid about the Victorians than a factoid of the time itself: the pervasive belief in that there was 'one "dud" in every box' of contraceptives (condoms or chemical pessaries).

Contraception at that date was far from reliable: the technology was rudimentary and quality control pretty much non-existent in a stigmatised industry (until the 1930s, when the National Birth Control Association started producing an Approved List of products which had passed their stringent tests). This lack of fitness for purpose got turned into a deliberate 'has to be one "dud" in each box', to the extent that it was even reported that 'they are obliged by the Government to have one "dud" in every box' (an alternative, somewhat later, version suggested that Roman Catholics got undercover jobs in contraceptive factories in order to stick holes in condoms).

The canard presumably arose through a combination of the perception that birth control was not successful in its desired purpose and awareness of increasing pronatalist concerns over 'population' as the decline in fertility began to register.

Statistical problems

These don't perhaps strictly count as factoids, but given the number of people who want to establish definite figures in these area, I think it's worthwhile pointing out the problems in trying to do so.
Prevalence of STDs
There are significant problems in determining the extent of venereal infections among the Victorian population.
  • The state of diagnosis was extremely basic and capable of leading to both under- and over-diagnosis of specific STDs.
  • The diseases were not notifiable and thus no collated statistics were being compiled at either local or national levels
  • Theoretically, information from death registrations might give information at least on syphilis-related conditions, but: syphilis was the 'Great Mimic' and fatal conditions of many organs could be caused or exacerbated by it; plus, at least among the respectable classes, doctors might well wish to spare the feelings of the family (especially if they wished to keep them as patients) by not reporting deaths as owing to this cause.
  • Hospital statistics of admission and treatment are not going to be particularly representative. There would have been numerous sufferers who were not 'of the hospital class' and would have been treated by private practitioners, with the expectation of discretion.
  • Patients in all classes sought out quack remedies. That this was very prevalent is suggested by the number of quacks in business, but actual figures of those who sought treatment by this route would be impossible to come by.
  • Numbers of prostitutes
    Quantifying numbers of sex workers in the Victorian era is very problematic.
  • Michael Mason in The Making of Victorian Sexuality pointed out the problems with reliance on estimates of numbers of prostitutes made by contemporaries, which tended to be either over- or under-estimated depending on the agenda of the observer, and might include stigmatising labelling of women who were not actually commercial sex-workers but merely living outside certain conventional moral frameworks.
  • Unlike large parts of Europe, the UK did not operate systems of registering and licensing of prostitutes, except in designated port and garrison towns for the fewer than twenty years during which the Contagious Diseases Acts were in force (first Act 1866, acts suspended 1883).
  • In those countries which did operate systems of registration, it was widely recognised that a great deal of 'clandestine' sex-work was taking place underneath this legal radar, and thus that the official statistics failed to reflect the extent of the trade.
  • Police statistics relating to arrests can tell us something, but pretty much apply only to street prostitution (a single, though the most visible, element within the sex-trade economy) and also varied wildly over time and from place to place depending on a range of factors affecting policing of this area.
  • A good deal of sex-work was casual or seasonal, undertaken by women who would have defined themselves as members of other occupational groups, as a result of temporary economic pressures.
  • Cannabis, alleged use for period pains by Queen Victoria

    As pointed out by Helen King in a letter to The Times 22 June 2011 (unfortunately concealed behind their paywall), this particular myth was definitively exploded by Virginia Berridge in 'Queen Victoria's Cannabis Use: Or, How History Does and Does Not Get Used in Drug Policy Making', Addiction Research & Theory Jan 2003, Vol. 11, No. 4: 213–215. John Russell Reynolds, a physician to the Royal Household, wrote in The Lancet in 1890 on the possible therapeutic benefits of cannabis. Any connection between these theories expressed in the medical press and his prescribing practices when treating the Royal family is not established: however, one can point out that by 1890 dysmenorrhoea was unlikely to have been a problem for the Queen, who was then over 70.

    Aristotle's Masterpiece: A Banned Book?

    Why it's misleading to describe Aristotle's Masterpiece as 'a banned book'.

    Some thoughts on Jack the Ripper and Ripperology

    Some very interesting and productive work can be done by examining this high-profile case, on the immediate setting, the women, Victorian sex-workers generally, late Victorian policing, the role of the press in creating it as An Event, and so forth. However, in the 1880s the population of London was pushing 4 million, plus as a capital and a major port city it had a substantial number of transients passing through. Tower Hamlets alone had a population of over 439,000. Given the number of possibilities (not to mention that it has been argued that not all the supposed Ripper victims were murdered by the same hand), it is rather irksome to find that the relatively small number of suspects suggested by a long tradition of Ripperologists are nearly all individuals already known to history for some reason or another. It's obviously easier to make a case (though some of the cases creak noticeably at the seams and are far from watertight) about someone who is known and for whom records survive and can be identified. But it's very problematic history to decide on a suspect and then look for the evidence.

    The British Royal Family’s Circumcision Tradition

    Very useful article by Robert Darby and John Cozijn on the Genesis and Evolution of this Contemporary Legend:
    The birth of Prince William’s son in July 2013 was the occasion for an outpouring of media speculation about the fate of the royal baby’s foreskin. The possibility that he might be circumcised was connected to a purported tradition of circumcision within the British royal family, said to be have been initiated either by Queen Victoria or by George I. In this article, we trace the origins and evolution of these stories and assess their validity.
    Recommended

    Victorian Sanitary Protection

    More of a myth about the modernity of the commercialisation of menstrual products. No, they weren't first invented during the First World War, but were being marketed on a commercial scale a good 20-30 years (at least) previously. My thoughts and evidence on the subject in a blog post.
    The Other in the Mirror: Sex, Victorians and Historians 'The Great Scourge': Syphilis as a medical problem and moral metaphor, 1880-1916 My Victorian publications Victorian reviews and recommended reading Victorian psychiatry

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    Last modified 12 November 2014